A ravishing, magisterial, poetic epic that moves its characters toward their tragic destinies with all the implacability of a Greek drama, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is one of the best Westerns of the 1970s, which represents the highest possible praise. It’s a magnificent throwback to a time when filmmakers found all sorts of ways to refashion Hollywood’s oldest and most durable genre. Given the narrower current notion of what constitutes an acceptable commercial feature, Andrew Dominik’s daring high-wire act will trod a very hard road to find secure theatrical footing, which suggests Warner Bros. might do best to nurture it in a small number of theaters in the hope that critical support and word of mouth will snowball into long runs and a slow rollout.
Whether it directly resembles them or not, this impeccable new picture is at one with the adventurous spirit that produced such films as “McCabe & Mrs. Miller,” “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid,” “Bad Company,” “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid,” “Jeremiah Johnson,” “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” “Days of Heaven,” “The Long Riders” and, yes, “Heaven’s Gate,” rather than with anything being made today.
Shot two years ago and long delayed in editing, pic marks an enormous advance for Dominik beyond his 2000 Aussie prison crimer “Chopper.” Elegant, artful and consumed by a fascination with American history and Western lore, his adaptation of Ron Hansen’s popular 1983 novel retills the once overworked ground of outlaw legend so thoroughly that it has become fertile once again. Pic’s hefty 160-minute running time will no doubt cause carping in some quarters, but this is one film whose length seems absolutely right for what it’s doing.
Meticulously noting dates and locations, and framing the story’s long arc with discreetly distanced narration, yarn commences on Sept. 5, 1881, just prior to the last train robbery pulled off by the James gang in their 14-year career . After this spectacularly staged nocturnal job, the older surviving brother, Frank (Sam Shepard), calls it quits and disappears back East, leaving Jesse (Brad Pitt), who’s 34, to continue with the help of dubious lowlifes such as the Ford boys.
Most questionable member of the latter clan is 19-year-old Robert (Casey Affleck), whose wimpy demeanor, thin, unemphatic voice and irritatingly sycophantic manner mark him as a singularly unpromising gunslinger.
But even when Jesse returns to his life with wife and children under the alias of Thomas Howard, he can’t quite bring himself to get rid of Bob, a leech who has collected every dime novel written about his hero. Jesse is both appalled and amused , at one point taunting Bob with the question, “You want to be like me, or you want to be me?”
Although arrestingly different from the outset, pic initially feels over-elaborated; shots in which the edges are purposely blurred, and a soundtrack too conspicuously mixed to emphasize ambient sounds of insects and weather, warn of incipient pretension. Fears also gather that Dominik has no intention of supplying the film with enough dramatic traction to sustain interest over the long haul, as the deliberate pacing seems designed to accommodate numerous embellishments and digressions.
But any sense of viewer impatience is soon overtaken by the film’s accumulation of detail on every front — narrative, historical, folkloric, behavioral and psychological. Pitching the dialogue in a way that neatly injects prairie twang with a literary lyricism, Dominik settles into an expansive narrative strategy of the sort often found in novels and longform series, wherein the story skips and meanders among events whose relevance and meaning may be initially unclear, but which are all there for good reasons.
While Jesse cools his heels and smokes his big cigars at home, attention shifts to cohorts Charley Ford (Sam Rockwell), Bob’s grinning older brother; Jesse’s cousin, the homely Wood Hite (Jeremy Renner), and Dick Liddil (Paul Schneider), a self-styled ladies’ man . Jesse’s shadow hovers over them all, and narrative’s dominant ploy is that the other characters are constantly afraid that Jesse, no matter where he is, will find out about any transgressions on their part and will come after them.
Which, in fact, he does. Intensely aware of his legendary status and willing to play it up when it suits him, especially with the worshipful Bob, this Jesse James is both paranoid that everyone’s out to get himand resigned to the fact that his days are numbered. His antennae for sensing when something is amiss are almost supernaturally acute, and he takes more than one long journey to track down people plotting against him . The irony is that the man he really needs to have his eye on is the one closest to him.
Eventually, the long-ineffectual authorities get into the act, setting in place the mechanism leading to Bob Ford’s almost ritual killing of Jesse as he dusts a picture frame in his house. But that’s not all, as the final half-hour provides its own fascination in playing out the strange fate of the man whose fame came with its own curse.
At least as conceived here, Jesse James is the biggest celebrity in the land, and Pitt generously endows the character with the droit de signeur he switches on at will. Thesp emphasizes Jesse’s mercurial nature, but in a way that suggests much of it is calculated, a strategy that, until the end, he uses to manipulate events . It’s a layered, continually interesting performance.
Affleck makes an indelible impression as the insecure, physically unprepossessing weakling who endures no end of humiliation, and eventually embodies the sort of nobody who has bloodied American history from time to time to insure his own immortality.
Rockwell’s effectively drawn Charley Ford is weak, but in a different way than his brother, always ducking to stay out of trouble, and he’s a good foil for the other, more withdrawn rural men. Supporting turns are vivid all around, including a vibrant cameo by political strategist James Carville as a big-shot governor.
Even those who resist the film itself will be in awe of its surpassing visual beauty and consummate craftsmanship. Just when it seemed that cinematographer Roger Deakins had achieved another career high with “No Country for Old Men,” he trumps himself yet again, here using a subdued palette of parched-plains earth tones captured with an extraordinary luminosity and delicacy.
Made on various Canadian locations, pic boasts great production values from top to bottom.